|This Week in American History
- October 10 16, 1854 -
Lincoln Exposes the Kansas-Nebraska Act as an Attack on the United States
When young lawyers Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were starting up their law careers in the 1830s in Springfield, Illinois, they both belonged to an informal debating society and they both courted Mary Todd. Lincoln won Mary's hand, and he also did so well in the debating society that Douglas told friends that Lincoln was the only man he was afraid of debating. Lincoln was much slower than his fellow lawyers in studying a subject, but he took the time to discover the underlying premises and ideology behind the arguments for or against a policy.
This is what Douglas feared, and rightfully so, when he became the national spokesman for the Kansas-Nebraska Act and attempted to soothe people's justifiable fears about its consequences. The Missouri Compromise of 1850, composed of a series of Congressional bills, had calmed much of the agitation concerning which new states carved out of the national territory would come into the Union as slave or free states. But on May 30, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Douglas had pushed through both houses of Congress, became law.
This act basically repealed the Missouri Compromise, divided the national lands west of Missouri into Kansas and Nebraska Territories, and ruled that the settlers would decide whether to allow slavery or not. How this would be decided, whether by vote or legislation, was not specified. Senator Douglas then took to the stump, agitating in favor of the bill and its vague provision for "popular sovereignty." Lincoln, although not now a candidate for office, took on the responsibility of demonstrating to Douglas's audiences that the bill was pure poison and targetted the very existence of the United States.
On October 16, 1854, Douglas delivered a major address to a large audience at Peoria, Illinois. Lincoln had arranged to speak after him, but the afternoon was well advanced when Douglas finished his harangue. Lincoln proposed that the audience go home to dinner, and then return to hear his speech, after which Senator Douglas would have an hour to reply. "I suspected," said Lincoln, "if it were understood, that the Judge [Douglas had been an Illinois Supreme Court Judge] was entirely done, you Democrats would leave, and not hear me; but by giving him the close, I felt confident you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me."
Lincoln began his speech that evening with a detailed history of the status of slavery in America, citing the times that the Founding Fathers and their successors had put limits around it, such as the abolition of the African slave trade, and its description as an act of piracy which carried the penalty of hanging. He cited Jefferson and the Northwest Ordinance, when a slave stateVirginiahad ceded its western lands to the Federal government, lands where slavery was not to be permitted.
"Thus," said Lincoln, "with the author of the Declaration of Independence, the policy of prohibiting slavery in new territory originated. Thus, a way back of the constitution, in the pure fresh, free breath of the revolution, the State of Virginia, and the national Congress put that policy in practice. Thus through 60-odd of the best years of the republic did that policy steadily work to its great and beneficent end. And thus, in those five states, and 5 millions of free, enterprising people, we have before us the rich fruits of this policy.
"But now new light breaks upon us. Now Congress declares this ought never to have been; and the like of it, must never be again. The sacred right of self-government is grossly violated by it! We even find some men, who drew their first breath, and every other breath of their lives, under this very restriction, now live in dread of absolute suffocation if they should be restricted in the 'sacred right' of taking slaves to Nebraska.
"That perfect liberty they sigh forthe liberty of making slaves of other peopleJefferson never thought of; their own father never thought of; they never thought of themselves, a year ago. How fortunate for them, they did not sooner become sensible of their great misery! Oh, how difficult it is to treat with respect, such assaults upon all we have ever really held sacred."
Lincoln then demonstrated that Southerners as well as Northerners felt that slavery was an evil. "Equal justice to the South, it is said, requires us to consent to the extending of slavery to new countries," said Lincoln. "That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave. Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and Negroes. But while you thus require me to deny the humanity of the Negro, I wish to ask whether you of the South yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much? It is kindly provided that of all those who come into the world, only a small percentage are natural tyrants. That percentage is no larger in the slave states than in the free. The great majority, South as well as North, have human sympathies, of which they can no more divest themselves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain. These sympathies in the bosoms of the Southern people, manifest in many ways, their sense of the wrong of slavery, and their consciousness that, after all, there is humanity in the Negro.
"If they deny this, let me address them a few plain questions. In 1820, you joined the North, almost unanimously, in declaring the African slave trade piracy, and in annexing to it the punishment of death. Why did you do this? If you did not feel that it was wrong, why did you join in providing that men should be hung for it? The practice was no more than bringing wild Negroes from Africa, to sell to such as would buy them. But you never thought of hanging men for catching and selling wild horses, wild buffaloes, or wild bears."
"And yet again; there are in the United States and territories, including the District of Columbia, 433,643 free blacks. At $500 per head they are worth over 2 hundred millions of dollars. How comes this vast amount of property to be running about without owners? We do not see free horses or free cattle running at large. How is this? All these free blacks are the descendants of slaves, or have been slaves themselves, and they would be slaves now, but for something which has operated on their white owners, inducing them, at vast pecuniary sacrifices, to liberate them. What is that something? Is there any mistaking it? In all these cases, it is your sense of justice, and human sympathy, continually telling you, that the poor Negro has some natural right to himselfthat those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kickings, contempt, and death."
Lincoln went on to describe the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a conscious aggravation of the one thing that endangered the Union. "When it came upon us, all was peace and quiet. The nation was looking to the forming of new bonds of union; and a long course of peace and prosperity seemed to lie before us. In the whole range of possibility, there scarcely appears to me to have been any thing, out of which the slavery agitation could have been revived, except the very project of repealing the Missouri Compromise. Every inch of territory we owned, already had a definite settlement of the slavery question, and by which, all parties were pledged to abide.
"In this state of case, the genius of Discord himself, could scarcely have invented a way of again getting us by the ears, but by turning back and destroying the peace measures of the past. The councils of that genius seem to have prevailed, the Missouri Compromise was repealed; and here we are, in the midst of a new slavery agitation, such, I think, as we have never seen before. Who is responsible for this? Is it those who resist the measure; or those who, causelessly, brought it forward, and pressed it through, having reason to know, and, in fact, knowing it must and would be so resisted?
It could not but be expected by its author, that it would be looked upon as a measure for the extension of slavery, aggravated by a gross breach of faith. Argue as you will, and long as you will, this is the naked front and aspect, of the measure. And in this aspect, it could not but produce agitation. Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's natureopposition to it, is his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shock, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri Compromiserepeal all compromisesrepeal the Declaration of Independencerepeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man's heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak."
Lincoln then foresaw what the result of setting up a race between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces to settle Kansas and Nebraska would be. "Through all this, bowie-knives and six-shooters are seen plainly enough; but never a glimpse of the ballot-box. And, really, what is to be the result of this? Each party within, having numerous and determined backers without, is it not probable that the contest will come to blows, and bloodshed? Could there be a more apt invention to bring about collision and violence, on the slavery question, than this Nebraska project is? I do not charge, or believe, that such was intended by Congress; but if they had literally formed a ring, and placed champions within it to fight out the controversy, the fight could be no more likely to come off, than it is. And if this fight should begin, is it likely to take a very peaceful, Union-saving turn? Will not the first drop of blood so shed, be the real knell of the Union?
"Little by little, but steadily as man's march to the grave, we have been giving up the old for the new faith. Near 80 years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now, from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a 'sacred right of self-government.' These principles can not stand together, They are as opposite as God and mammon; and whoever holds to the one, must despise the other. When Pettit, in connection with his support of the Nebraska bill, called the Declaration of Independence 'a self-evident lie,' he only did what consistency and candor require all other Nebraska men to do. Of the 40-odd Nebraska Senators who sat present and heard him, no one rebuked him. Nor am I apprised that any Nebraska newspaper, or any Nebraska orator, in the whole nation, has ever yet rebuked him.
"If this had been said among Marion's men, Southerners though they were, what would have become of the man who said it? If this had been said to the men who captured André, the man who said it, would probably have been hung sooner than André was. If it had been said in old Independence Hall, 78 years ago, the very door-keeper would have throttled the man, and thrust him into the street.
"Let no one be deceived. The spirit of '76 and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter."